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Assault suspect fired by Willowglen

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Photo by Ashley Schreyer/New Jersey Herald - Steven Smith, left, of Vernon pleads not guilty to the charges against him at Sparta Municipal Court Thursday, as Sgt. John-Paul Beebe looks on. Photo by Ashley Schreyer/New Jersey Herald - Steven Smith, left, of Vernon pleads not guilty to the charges against him at Sparta Municipal Court Thursday, as Sgt. John-Paul Beebe looks on.
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By JESSICA MASULLI REYES

jmasulli@njherald.com

SPARTA -- A Vernon man who pleaded not guilty Thursday to allegations that he slapped, tripped and hit a non-verbal client at Willowglen Academy has been fired.

Steven D. Smith, 25, was initially suspended from his job at Willowglen Academy during the investigation, but he has since been fired, according to Tom Mitchell, the associate executive director of Willowglen Academy New Jersey.

"Willowglen Academy takes the safety and well being of every individual entrusted to our care very seriously," Mitchell said. "Unfortunately, when reviewing an interaction between consumers and a staff member of day services on video, we observed an incident of wrongdoing by an employee and immediately contacted local authorities."

After a police investigation, Smith was arrested and charged with assaulting the 26-year-old client, including striking him with a TV remote control on the head on one occasion. Surveillance cameras showed assaults occurred on May 28 and 30, and June 5, police said.

Smith entered the not-guilty plea in Sparta municipal court before Judge John Mulhern for three counts of simple assault, endangering the welfare of an incompetent person and harassment.

Mulhern said that the maximum sentences for these crimes are $1,000 and six months in county jail each for the simple assault and endangering the welfare charges, and $500 and 30 days in county jail for the harassment charge.

Smith's attorney, Joel Bacher was not with him in court, but later said via phone that his client is innocent until proven guilty.

"Obviously, these are very serious charges," he said, adding that he and Smith have not yet seen the video surveillance police referenced.

Willowglen Academy is a facility for adults with developmental disabilities.

"Our top priority is for the well being of the consumers we serve, and for the peace of mind of their parents and guardians when entrusting their loved one to our care," Mitchell said. "W e are committed to providing secure and safe environments in all of our residences, programs and services, and delivering services of the highest integrity to all persons we are privileged to serve."

A former employee at Willowglen Academy was arrested in 2011 for punching an autistic client in the stomach and saying racial slurs to her. Paul J. Rinaldi, who was a Vernon resident at the time, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree bias intimidation for punching the woman. In April 2011, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and one year of probation.

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